A Flora and Fauna of Symi

A personal guide to the wildlife of Symi and beyond

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Sea Squill

August 18, 2014

This plant is the sea squill or Urginea  maritima. Although typical of the region, despite its name, I found this specimen on one of the highest peaks on Symi, just below Stavros Polemou.

This plant is one of the few to flower in the late summer before the Autumn rains. Its leaves have long gone and the tall spike of flowers shoots directly from a large bulb that sits below the surface of the very dry soil. The bulb can weigh up to two kilograms and is very poisonous. The sea squill avoids competition with other flowers and is often covered in pollinating bees and although I did look around to see if there were others I think this was a solitary plant.

This species has been used as a medicinal plant since ancient times. It is noted in the Ebers Papyrus of the 16th century BC, one of the oldest medical texts of ancient Egypt. Pythagoras wrote about it in the 6th century BC and Hippocrates used it to treat jaundice, convulsions, and asthma. Theophrastus was also familiar with it. Its primary medicinal use was as a treatment for edema, then called dropsy, because of its diuretic properties. A solution of sea squill and vinegar was a common remedy for centuries. The plant is also used as a laxative and an expectorant.

The plant has also been used as a poison. It is very bitter, so most animals avoid it. Rats, however, eat it readily, and then succumb to the toxic scilliroside. This has made the plant a popular rodenticide for nearly as long as it has been in use as a medicine. The bulbs are dried and cut into chips, which can then be powdered and mixed with rat bait. The plant was introduced as an experimental agricultural crop in the 20th century primarily to develop high-toxicity varieties for use as rat poison. It has also been tested as an insecticide against pests such as the red flour beetle (Tribolium castaneum).

Pythagoras and Dioscorides hung the bulbs with sprouted leaves outside the door in spring as protection against evil spirits.

In Israel the sea squill has gained an almost iconic status and is popularly known as the ‘harbinger of autumn’ due to the fact that the flowers pop out all over the country at the end of the dry summer, some time before the first rains. During the New Year celebrations, here on Symi, people hang the bulbs of the sea squill in the house or on fences as part of a fertility rite and to keep their property safe.

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